Ep. 038: The First Chan Patriarch and the Five (plus One) Great Temples of Guangzhou

Meet Bodhidharma, and learn how he came to China

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Come with me as we take a look-see at the "Five Great Temples of Guangzhou" (with an extra one thrown in for good measure) and meet Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Chan (Zen) in China, and find how he's directly connected with Huineng, the Sixth.

All this in Episode 038 of


You've probably heard of Guangzhou; with 44.2 million people, its China's largest metro area and the capital of Guangdong Province. If it doesn't sound familiar, it might be because it's better known in English as "Canton" (as in "Cantonese food"), a corruption of the province name. Prehistoric settlement dates to over 3,000 years ago, though the formal founding of the predecessor city, Panyu, was "only" in 214 BCE.

But our interest in this modern economic powerhouse begins a few centuries later, with the possibly-legendary landing of an ill-tempered, heavily-bearded, bulgy-blue-eyed "barbarian" monk named Bodhidharma. Perhaps a central or south Asian--history is not clear--he is often called an Indian for convenience's sake. He may have arrived in the 5th or 6th century, though again, history is shaky.

Bodhidharma in Hualin Temple's Main Hall, with a signboard reading "One Flower, Five Petals"

But legend is firm. If you visit the southern turnabout at a shopping district known as the "Upper and Lower Ninth Pedestrian Street" (it sounds better in Chinese), you'll find, just at the point where people step out of their cars, a reflective pond with a prominent marker reading Xilai Gu'an--the "Old Come-from-the-West Shore." For this spot, they say--about ten football fields from the current bed of the nearest branch of the Pearl River--is where Bodhidharma stepped off the boat from "the west"--that is, the Indian subcontinent. As many as 600,000 visitors a day throng that one-kilometer stretch of shops and restaurants; I doubt any of them stop to contemplate the small marker, and the momentous occasion it betokens.

I don't want to get too wrapped up in legends of Bodhidharma right now (but for those who are interested, let me point you to Andy Ferguson's remarkable 2012 book, Tracking Bodhidharma: A Journey to the Heart of Chinese Culture). Instead, I want to stay "anchored," as it were (ha ha) to the geography in which he is said to have moved about.

Because although he lived out most of his career far to the north, Bodhidharma's earliest China days physically overlap the stomping grounds of the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, the last representative of the "pure" form of the tradition brought by Bodhidharma, before it splintered into a myriad of sects. (Incidentally, we met Huineng back in Episode 021.)

In the process, we will have to talk about a couple of temples that claim "Bodhidharma Slept Here." Since these places are some of the "Five Great Temples of Guangzhou," we'll go ahead and round out the list (though one is a substitute for a defunct member).

Hualin Si, "The Chinese Jungle"

This sign marks where Bodhidharma (allegedly) landed. Note the backs of the five cartoonish goats right behind it; their importance to Guangzhou will be mentioned near the end of this Newsletter.

Wander northward for five minutes past the shopping street where Bodhidharma landed and veer off slightly to the west and you'll pass the modest gate of Hualin Temple. To translate this as "Flowered Woods"--which in fact refers to an incident in Bodhidharma's life--may be to miss the point somewhat. Because lin, a "forest" (or jungle) is another designation of a Buddhist temple, harking back to the days when monks meditated in the forests of India. And hua, though literally meaning "flower," is also widely used as a reference to China itself. So better to call this "China Temple," meaning the Chinese seat of the Indian patriarch Bodhidharma. (It was earlier called Xilai An, "Coming-from-the-West Hermitage"; one wonders what it may have been called before Bodhidharma arrived, though one tradition says he founded it.)

The small rear side gate to the disrupted Hualin Temple

Small as it is, the temple has much to offer. We actually enter by a small side gate at the rear of the grounds. It seems the whole place has been carved out of a hutong (alleyway) neighborhood, and one gets the feeling that it may at some point in time have disappeared completely. But let's pretend that we're experiencing the place front to back, having entered by a front gate that isn't there. (Peering over the wall in front of the main hall, I saw more hovels--though that was in 2010; a Google Satellite View indicates a cleared area there now, probably for the temple's extension.)

The 300-year-old pagoda, under which Buddha relics were "rediscovered" in 1965, now stands in front of the Hall of 500 Arhats.

The main hall has a 20-foot statue of Bodhidharma on the main altar, with a signboard above his head reading "One Flower, Five Petals." This refers to the fact that Bodhidharma (the "one flower") was succeeded by five Chan patriarchs. Between the main hall and the only other building of any size is a cramped courtyard, home to a stone pagoda dated 1701 which was built to hold supposed relics of the Buddha. It wandered around Guangzhou a bit after the front end of the temple was sold off for housing in 1924. In a subsequent move, in 1965, the relics were "rediscovered" in the foundation. The pagoda was returned to the temple in 1994, and the relics--confiscated (for safekeeping?) by the government in the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" in 1965--were returned in 1996.

Marco Polo is seated next to Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva in the Arhats' Hall.

Next to the pagoda is the tian (田) shaped 500 Arhat Hall, built, a sign says, in 1849. It's a nice enough place, made more interesting by a statue of the only Italian arhat I've ever seen (besides my brother Stefano): it's purported to be Marco Polo! A sign informs us that the Arhats made in 1849 were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution; so, perhaps, was the Hall, or at least it was seriously damaged, as it was "reconstructed" in the 1990s. (If you're keeping score, that means pretty much everything was gone until the 1990s.)

Devotees throw cash on "Bodhidharma's bed."

Next to that hall is a small Bodhidharma Hall ("reconstructed in the 1990s") with a statue of the man himself, and next to it a bed (the actual bed where he slept!--no, I made that up), onto which the faithful throw money. Also in the room are storage boxes, the broken arms of a Thousand-Armed Guanyin, and other detritus.

Next to that is the back (and only) gate, opening into the Hualin Jade Market, which occupies an area that was formerly another temple, Changshou Si. No trace of that remains except in the name of the street running along the north side of the area. Yet it was once one of the "Five Great Temples of Guangzhou"; I'll say more about it later.

Haizhuang Si, "The Ocean Banner Temple"

Let's swing southwest less than an hour's walk to the south side of the Pearl River (as it flows east-west across Guangzhou) and pick up another of the "Five Greats." It's a real garden spot.

The park-like nature of beautiful Haizhuang Temple's setting is no coincidence. Originally, the area was a private garden, which was given over for use as a temple more than a thousand years ago. Then, in 1932, it was secularized and opened as a park for the public. At one point, an amusement park was installed; I like to imagine monks riding the bumper cars there!

Very dynamic Ha and Heng in the Main Gate

Since then it's had its ups and downs, but in 1993 it was again turned over to Buddhist administration. Many of the buildings and statues are new, but the ancient trees bear witness to the temple's history.

People tie wishes on this "Blessing Tree" (for a fee, one presumes).

Entering by the front gate, one is greeted by very dynamic statues of the guardians Ha ("Blower") and Heng ("Snorter")--whom we met in Episode 027--each with only one foot firmly on the ground. To the left is a reception room and library. Steles line the left side of the courtyard, and small halls the right, including one dedicated to Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch. Statues and halls dedicated to this titan will be found at most Buddhist temples in and around Guangzhou, which is not far from his birthplace. Dead ahead are the "Free Life Ponds," where devotees release animals from captivity.

Beyond that are the Hall of Heavenly Kings, the Buddha Hall, and the rear hall, as are found in many temples.

Guanyin stands in a pond in front of the Haihui Pagoda.

But interspersed between these edifices are many unusual and attractive features. For example, next to the Hall of the Heavenly Kings is the so-called "Blessing Tree," festooned with red ribbons inscribed with the wishes of visitors. Behind the same hall is a statue of Guanyin standing in a pond, and next to that is the newly-made but attractive Haihui Pagoda, decorated with images of the Laughing Buddha. In its own courtyard off to the left is a stupa with the Four Great Bodhisattvas on its four faces.

This beautiful modern stupa has panels depicting each of the four major Bodhisattvas.

Between the main hall and the rear hall are an Iron Pagoda, and a truly ancient banyan tree; I doubt three people could get their arms around its trunk! Near the back gate are halls used for lectures and the recitation of sutras, signs that pure Buddhism is back and thriving in this park-like setting.

Dafo Si, "The Temple of the Great Buddha"

Now we head north, to a tight cluster of three temples that can be visited together on foot in a half-day, less than a mile and a half between them. Let's start with Dafo Temple, a kind of "also-ran."

The Main Hall is the only original structure at Dafo Temple.

Sometimes researching Chinese temples can be a bit confusing. Because I lack much in the way of Chinese language skills, I always start with English sites, then go to Chinese if necessary (usually with the help of a translation program). So it took me quite a while to solve a mystery: I had seen references to the "Five Great Temples of Guangzhou." Then I found references to only four. And then five again.

Puzzled? I was. Here's the solution: As nearly as I can tell, there were in fact Five Great Temples until the end of the 19th century: Liurong, Guangxiao, Hualin, Haizhuang, and Changshou. Then, in 1905, the last of these was razed; as I've mentioned before, the Hualin Jade Market now stands on the site, and all that remains of the former temple is the name "Changshou Street."

The big Buddhas at "Big Buddha Temple" are only a few decades old.

So there were only four. Then at some point--perhaps as recently as the '90s--another temple was named to round out the five again. That temple is the ancient but newly-rebuilt Dafo Temple.

When I last visited the site, in early 2011, there was a lot of construction going on. The main attraction is the main hall, the only surviving building from the old days. Its three large Buddha statues, however, are only a few decades old. Other nice features in the hall are the paintings-on-tile of the Eighteen Arhats.

I loved the cartoon Arhats in the Main Hall, painted on tile.

The rest of the temple is composed of small halls. A weekend visit reveals a very active temple life in the heart of old Guangzhou.

Liurong Si, "The Temple of Six Banyan Trees"

From Dafo to Liurong Temple is less than a mile. The route passes an odd little garden called the Yaozhou Ruins Site. Its tiny size belies its significance: it was once an imperial garden used for growing medicinal herbs (the "Yao" here means "medicine"), and is one of the oldest such sites in China. Some say alchemical concoctions were produced here. There's little to see today but a small pond and some stones.

But Liurong Temple? That's another story. Unlike any other temple in Guangzhou, this is one of the 142 Key Temples of China that I spent so much time and effort to see (though at this point I'm still short of the goal by ten!) It is also the closest of the 142 to my decade-long home in Shenzhen.

Poet Su Dongpo gave the temple its name; this statue of him stands in the small northern courtyard.

Founded in 537 CE, the temple has undergone numerous name changes. The current name was bestowed by the great poet and statesman Su Dongpo (1037-1101) who was struck by the temple's trees on a visit during the Northern Song Dynasty. While only a few of the eponymous trees survive, the temple itself is a leafy oasis in the middle of the province's busy capital.

Two banyan trees at Six Banyan Tree Temple

The banyan, though not the tree the Buddha sat under when attaining enlightenment, is nonetheless often associated with that event (he sat under one subsequently). And "six"? It could be for the six levels of existence, the six perfections (see Episode 022), or perhaps--most appropriately--the first six patriarchs of Chan. Or it could be that there were just six trees.

The "Flowery Pagoda" stands in the main courtyard. This is an unusual location.

Holding center place at the temple, though, is something downright "flowery": the Hua Ta or "Flower Pagoda," so-called because the ornate shape of its roof resembles the petals of a flower. Unusually for most Chinese temples, the nearly-thousand-year-old pagoda--more likely to be found in a "West Garden"--stands in the central courtyard, directly in front of the main hall (which seems sort of squeezed in behind it). But in fact, many Buddhist temples were originally simple compounds built around a pagoda. Although this pagoda, like the temple, has been rebuilt several times, it retains this ancient position.

Huineng sits in his own hall, a common feature of Guangzhou temples.

In contrast to most Chinese Buddhist temples, which face south, Liurong Temple faces east. To the south side of the main compound is a secondary compound with a hall dedicated to Huineng, as well as several memorial halls and a dining hall. A much smaller courtyard north of the main hall holds a bronze Buddha from Thailand given to the temple in 1985. That same quiet courtyard holds a statue of Su Dongpo, the poet who gave the temple its name.

Guangxiao Si, "The Temple of Filial Piety"

At last we come to Number Five of the "Five Great Temples of Guangzhou"--both the original list and the modern one--and the second temple associated with Bodhidharma, as well as with the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng. It's a five-minute walk down a leafy pedestrian path from Liurong Temple. One of south China's most significant temples, it's a mystery to me why it wasn't included on the list of 142 key temples, though there's some possibility that when the list was made in 1983, it wasn't in good enough condition to be included.

Nevertheless, it's Guangzhou's oldest temple; a proverb says, "Before there was Guangzhou, there was already Guangxiao." In the Han dynasty it was the residence of a usurping south Chinese king; in 233, it was donated as a temple, making it nearly 1,800 years old.

The Mountain Gate at Guangxiao Temple. See Episode 027 for more about the figures located here.

The first thing I noticed on arrival was the Mountain Gate containing the exquisite, antique-looking statues of Ha and Heng. Passing these guardians, and walking through an open-plan Heavenly Kings Hall, I entered a courtyard with some fascinating relics.

Both Bodhidharma and Huineng are said to have washed a bowl here that was allegedly passed down from the Buddha. I wonder where it is now?

To the right is a well where, it is said, Bodhidharma washed his bowl. Though he was the First Patriarch of Chan in China, he was supposed to be the 28th patriarch of Dhyana (Chan, Zen) in India, and tradition says the bowl he washed here was passed down through the generations from the Shakyamuni Buddha himself. Once in China, Bodhidharma in turn passed it on to his successors.

Huineng's hair--cut off when he was ordained--is supposed to be buried under this pagoda.

Five generations after Bodhidharma, a layman walked through the courtyard of Guangxiao Temple, where he saw two young monks looking at a flag flapping in the wind, and arguing over whether the flag was moving or the wind was moving. Asked to settle the matter, the layman replied cryptically: "Neither. Your mind is moving." Hearing of this, the abbot of the temple recognized the layman to be Huineng and shaved him, making him a monk. There is a pagoda at the temple under which his hair is said to be interred. Huineng, they say, washed Bodhidharma's bowl at the same well over 150 years later.

And so, the First Patriarch washed a bowl here; the Sixth did the same--and got a haircut.

One of the temple's two iron pagodas. The other has all of its stories, and is protected by a building.

The temple has many more features; a fine vegetarian restaurant, a library, and two iron pagodas (one inside a hall) are worth a look. Also, don't miss the hall dedicated to Huineng, situated appropriately in front of the Chan or meditation hall.


There's so much more to see in Guangzhou. At the top of some lists would be the Five Immortals Temple, revered as the city's mythical founding site where in 9 BCE five immortals riding goats came down and gave grain to the Cantonese people, leaving their footprints on the ground, which can still be seen; and the Chen Clan Academy, a late-Qing institution now housing the Guangdong Folk Craftwork Museum.

But that's all we have time for now. So, until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!

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In the next episode: The last time I spoke of Japan, it was to tell you of my Aki Meguri or "Autumn Journey" down the Old Tokaido Highway, from Tokyo to Kyoto. This time, let me follow up with the last leg of that trip, a very brief overview of my 88 Temple Pilgrimage on Shikoku. It was awesome!